The Scientific Indian

Measuring the world is a novel by the young Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann who has been hailed as one of the most promising new generation of writers. This novel is the first to be translated into english (by Carol Brown Janeway) and has become a international sensation.

The novel examines the themes of Genius and Freedom through the extraordinary lives of two great Enlightenment era scientists: Gauss and Humboldt. Gauss is a consummate genius who is considered to be the greatest mathematician since Newton. Humboldt is one of the greatest naturalist and explorer the world has ever seen.

The difference between Gauss and Humboldt is as vast as their passion for understanding the world. Humboldt goes out to measure everything he could on the earth. Gauss sits at home and deduces the structure of Space and measures the frequency of prime numbers. Humboldt is always conscious of his legacy, presenting himself in good light and making sure history would judge him well. Gauss has scant regard for others and cares about them even less; he doesn’t care when his own son Eugen is in peril after having been arrested for treason during a student meeting.

These shortcomings are the redeeming qualities in these two men. It is this comedy of genius that makes them human. Their remarkably rich lives – Gauss with his soaring mathematics and Humboldt with his relentless march into the deepest jungle – are two contrasting accounts of the meaning of Freedom.

An uproarious recreation of Humboldt’s experiments with frog’s legs to test if they twitch due to electric currents caused by potential difference between two different metals.

When the mundane is out of their way, both men are moved by their genius to give everything in their power to know the world. In Gauss’s case, it is to be able to see beyond “the pitiful arbitrariness of existence… born into a particilar time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not”, to be able to dig deep.

Gauss is twenty two when he completes “Disquisitiones arithmeticae”, a mathematical work comparable to Newton’s Principia. On one occasion while working on the mathematics of the book Gauss wonders “whether there was a proscription against what he was doing. Was he digging too deep? At the base of physics were rules, at the base of rules there were laws, at the base of laws there were numbers; if one looked at them intently, one could recognize relationships between them, repulsions or attractions. Some aspects of their construction seemed incomplete, occasionally hastily thought out, and more than once he thought he recognized roughly concealed mistakes – as if god has permitted Himself to be negligent and hoped nobody would notice”.

Humboldt meanwhile would climb the highest peak in the known world: Mount Chimborazo[ Mount Chimborazo is now in modern Ecuador. Humboldt’s painting of Chimborazo is breathtakingly beautiful and shows his artistry as much as his scientific rigor, the painting contains great many details on the flora as one moves up the elevation], he would travel down the Orinoco river beyond the final outposts of civilization, descend down caves full of bats, brave the mosquitos and electric eels, and measure every bit of earth. He would leave nothing out – not even the count of lice on women’s head in South America.

Within the rigid confines of the ‘pitiful arbitrariness of existence’, these two men born in Germany when the cultural and political ground was shifting beneath their feet set out to realize their calling. In their passionate quest to understand the underlying laws of the world they were one and the the same person: an embodiment of humanity’s aspiration, genius and folly.

The novel weaves the lives of these two men in a series of exquisite events that are delightful, melancholic, outrageous and most of all hilarious. Kehlmann is a supreme storyteller with a sure hand and his humor is exquisite – the kind of humor that lingers and makes you smile often and at odd moments. I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in recent years.

Above is the summarized version. The longer notes is published at This novel is incidentally the memento that I promised the Scifi contest winners. It is on its way to them as I write this post.


  1. #1 Kevin W. Parker
    December 28, 2007

    I agree with your recommendation. My favorite bit was when Humboldt’s long-suffering assistant, Bonpland, fantasizes about using the last of his strength (sapped by Humboldt’s unrelenting urge to explore) to shove Humboldt off a cliff.

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